Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director, and director of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Kip Williams knows when he’s onto a good thing. After the breakout success of his technically and artistically brilliant The Picture of Dorian Gray, he’s picked another piece of transformative, gothic fiction to bring to the stage with the same flare and verve, but with an even more refined eye. And proves that yes, it does take two men to do the job of one woman. Down with the patriarchy!
I’ll skip the plot summary because you likely already know the basics of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic. Thematically we’re swimming in similar waters to Dorian Gray. Who are we when freed from society’s constraints? When civil man gives in to the lusts of the flesh what evil may come?
As far as being a Victorian morality play, Williams starts things pretty simply (and it’s this theme of simplicity and easing the audience into the world that are the real strengths of this production). A single digital screen on a bare stage. An actor in a white t-shirt narrating to the audience. Slowly, piece-by-piece, Williams starts to layer on the artifice of this world, taking the audience into the technical choreography one piece at a time. From the slow reveal of the cameras, to the first tentative interplay between screen and stage. If Dorian Gray tried to surprise the audience with its intricate ballet of tech and talent, Jekyll & Hyde is doing its best to hide it in plain sight. One screen becomes two, then four, then five… and then the games really begin.
It would be easy to reduce STC’s Jekyll & Hyde to being “a sequel to The Picture of Dorian Gray”. So great was Dorian’s success—with three runs in Sydney, an Australian tour and upcoming runs in New York and London (don’t miss it!)—and given that the techniques used in Dorian are here again. But Williams has resisted the urge to simply pile on more; more gadgets, more filters, more screens. There’s a confident reserve here. As a director, he knows the narrative is key and gives his two actors, Matthew Backer and Ewen Leslie, room to captivate the audience on their own. And they do! Backer takes on the core role of Gabriel John Utterson, Dr Jekyll’s lawyer and close friend, and provides an emotional hook for the audience. He is the still point in the storm of cameras, lights, LEDs and costumes, with a sympathetic, very human performance that belies the mountain of text he has to deliver and the careful timing of his every move. He makes the complexity look common-place.
Around him swirls Ewen Leslie as Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde and a raft of other characters. Leslie is chewing scenery and loving every second of it; it’s an actorly flex that’s well earned. Leslie’s various roles inhabit a world of camp (I giggled to myself at least once imagining Drew Droege’s Chloë Sevigny delivering some of his complex, well-articulated lines). The real beauty here is how simple the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is. Unlike Dorian Gray’s heavy use of AR filters, this time it is a simple tweak; the blacking out of the eyes familiar to anyone who’s watched any kind of supernatural TV show or film. Often it’s achieved without any tech at all, just severe lighting and wonderfully powerful performance.
But don’t think this is somehow less impressive than the wizardry of Dorian Gray, it isn’t. The staircase scene is sheer theatrical brilliance. Like watching a Hitchcock film on stage, complete with vertigo-inducing visuals. As Jekyll describes his transformation into Hyde, the stage comes alive with a genre-breaking burst of energy. Dorian did a similar trick, but here it feels more immersive. While Dorian rested on the shoulders of one performer, having two actors on stage here gives the show a more fluid pace that is less frantic and, hopefully for the performers, less exhausting (poor Eryn Norvill looked like she was going pass out every night).
The implicit queerness of the story is embraced, but rarely rises to the surface. Utterson’s line, “the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask”, is spoken with a straight reading, but still elicited smiles from the audience, as Hyde unleashes his lust that society has kept locked away.
As we entered the theatre I initially rolled my eyes that the show runs two hours, with no interval. As a patron I need a bathroom break, not to mention a wine-refill. But reaching the end of the show I could see why STC chose to forgo the extra bar takings; once you’re in this heady world you don’t want to step out of it. The production has done such an incredible job of holding your hand and taking you into this magical space you don’t want to break its spell.
A large part of that is the filmic score by Clemence Williams and immersive sound design by Michael Toisuta that maintain the tension throughout, and the well-balanced interplay between David Bergman’s video designs, Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Marg Horwell’s multifaceted design work.
This is another example of fascinatingly immersive, multi-disciplined theatre that feels easily accessible to all. I’d love to see Kip Williams’ create one more show like this to cap off a theatrical trilogy and then move onto fresher works, but for now let this be his version of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy; a series of independent works, unified by an outlook and stylistic vision. This is career-making work and not to be missed.
By Chad Armstrong
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney till September 10th 2022.